Like Willy Wonka, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is serenading us all with the promise of a world made of pure imagination. Only his requires a virtual-reality helmet and not a chocolate factory.
Oculus VR and its new parent company, Facebook, are preparing to unleash the next computing platform, and it’s probably time we found out what that even means.
Maybe you’ve heard about the Oculus Rift, the virtual-reality goggles that you wear on your face to enter digital worlds? Facebook spent $2 billion to acquire Oculus VR, the startup responsible for the device, and now the two companies are working toward releasing a version for everyday consumers. Oculus VR got started when it raised $2.44 million on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter back in the summer of 2012, and it has since gone on to sell thousands of its developer kits to people who want to make games for the platform. Meanwhile, it is refining the technology. The final product should debut later this year or in early 2015.
If you have heard about it, and you haven’t followed along with its development, it’s probably because Zuckerberg spent so much to buy the technology. But that leads to some obvious questions: Why is it worth so much? Why does Facebook care? And does it really work?
Well, we’re gonna look into those and more as we uncover everything you need to know about the Oculus Rift.
- Price: To be determined (Around $300-$350)
- Release: To be determined (Holiday 2014 or later)
- Requires a PC (may eventually work with Android as well)
- Most games require separate input (controller, mouse, and keyboard)
- Comes bundled with camera for motion-tracking
- Works with some existing games
Tech specs for the latest headset, the Development Kit 2
- 1080p OLED screen running at 75 Hz
- 960-by-1080 pixels per eye
- 100 degree field of view
- HDMI and USB cable
- Weighs less than 1 lb.
What’s it like to use Oculus Rift, and how does it work?
Oculus Rift delivers on the science-fiction promise of virtual reality, but is it really like entering into a video game? For a lot of people, the answer is yes.
Putting on the Rift replaces your field of vision with a digital image. Turning your head left changes your perspective in the simulation as well, which creates the sensation that you are inside the game. People who work with virtual reality call that feeling “presence.” When you obtain it, your body can’t always distinguish between what is real and what you’re seeing in the Rift.
The device accomplishes this with a number of different techniques.
The mask contains a large screen (the latest dev kit uses the same display as Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3 phone) to help provide enough area to take up to 100 degrees of your vision at a time. Then, each eye looks through a a different lens at a different part of the screen, which creates a stereoscopic 3D effect.
Creating an image with depth is only one part of creating the virtual experience. In order to foster presence, the Rift needs to track the way your head and body move. To do that, the headset features a number of sensors that detect tilt and orientation. The latest version of the Rift comes with an external camera that can see a number of infrared lights on the head-mounted display. When these indicators move, the camera can see it and translate it to the game.
All of these technologies combine to create a headset where you can look up and down, left and right, and lean to side-to-side inside a virtual world.
One of the best ways to understand how the the technology works is the spaceship-dogfighting game Eve: Valkyrie. This puts players in the cockpit of a starfighter (like Star Wars‘ X-wings and TIE fighters). With the Oculus Rift, sitting at your desk may feel like you are really sitting inside a ship. When you look up, you see through the ship’s windows. When you look down, you see its control panel. You can even look behind you to see out the rear port.
The important thing is that all of this really works. We’ve used it. We were skeptical, but it truly feels like you’re looking around a digital environment.
For most games, you’re going to need some kind of control device. In Eve: Valkyrie, you’ll probably want a flight stick. For others, you may want to use the mouse and keyboard or maybe an Xbox 360 controller.
But this is virtual reality, so the really exciting controllers are things like the giant omnidirectional treadmills that translate your walking into game control. One device, the Virtualizer, enables you to walk around and then sit down on the fly without having to change any hardware. This is great for running around and hijacking cars in something like Grand Theft Auto.
Other companies, like Control VR, are working on body and arm tracking as well. The potential is that by the time Oculus Rift hits retail, gamers will have a number of control options available to them.
What kinds of games are people making?
As we noted, Oculus has already sold thousands of development kits, and studios as well as individual creators are working on original content. Some developers are even working on adding support for the device to their existing games.
Mostly, these designers are working on first-person games with exploration, but we are also seeing a ton of experimentation. An early Rift game enabled you to go through a beheading. Another is Euro Truck Simulator 2, which puts you in the cockpit of a big rig traveling across Europe.
But the options get a whole lot wilder than that. One standout is Soundself, which really isn’t a game. This software challenges players to watch a swirling show of lights and colors that responds to the sound of your meditational humming. The platformer Lucky’s Tale even does away with first-person perspective. It instead has you looking down on an adventure from a god-like top-down view.
As a gaming machine, the Oculus Rift is truly next generation. It’s possible that some unknown developer is toiling away right now on the next Minecraft, The Elder Scrolls, or Call of Duty — and the only way you’ll get to experience it is through the Oculus Rift. That could lead to significant sales for the device, and the huge number of users means more eyeballs to put content and advertising in front of — which is exactly the business that Facebook is in.
Wait, all of this sounds like something I could use at work
The potential for virtual reality extends far beyond games, and Oculus and Facebook are already talking about the technology’s business and social applications.
Maybe you’re an architect who has had to show miniature models to your clients for your entire career. Well, with Rift, you can build something in your drafting software and create a life-sized 3D model that people can explore as if they’re really standing inside of it.
Educators can use the Rift to take students on tours of important historical events. The U.S. Declaration of Independence may have more meaning to someone who actually witnesses the founders signing it.
Games themselves may even change to serve a whole new audience thanks to the immersive quality of virtual reality. Your grandma may use virtual reality to travel the world in simulated versions of Paris or Tokyo. If you don’t like crowds, you could toggle the people in the virtual tour on or off.
Beyond the Rift
The Oculus Rift of today is a cool piece of technology. It’s introducing several new ways for humans to interact with machines, and it finally makes the idea of a VR headset a reality. Oculus VR isn’t going to stop with the Rift, though.
Facebook’s latest subsidiary says it wants to solve all of the problems with putting people in virtual reality. It’s working on vision right now, but it also wants to work on touch, smell, and taste. The idea is to completely remove any barriers between you and full presence in a simulation.
For now, Oculus has its hands full solving the problems involved with sight, but once the Rift finally does debut, the company plans to move on to some newer and potentially grander challenge.